In early 2016, British scientists got the go-ahead to begin ‘gene-editing’ of human embryos for a 14 day research project. For centuries, the human genome has been the enigmatic source code of what makes us who we are. However, recent advancements in technology brought to reality the prospect of a ‘Designer Baby’. Are we investing in the perfect human at the cost of humanity?
For Genetic Engineering
Genetic modification of human embryos may sound like something from science fiction but even today, gene-editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9 are under widespread use, and allow scientists to alter DNA with precision down to single letters in a DNA strand.
The benefits and possible applications that research into the genetic engineering of human embryos could bring are overwhelming. Genome modification could lead to the eradication of genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis from future generations and provide defence against infection, Alzheimer’s or even ageing. From a utilitarian standpoint, this is hugely attractive since it gives the potential to reduce suffering for a massive number of people. Preventing the research might prevent these problems from ever being solved. This research could not only open the door to these benefits but enhance our understanding of IVF, improving success rates.
Some argue that this research could eventually lead to producing ‘designer babies’ with desired physical or intellectual traits. However, is preventing research due to these issues worth giving up what it could achieve in the long term? If you had the chance to improve life by remove a damaging hereditary condition from your child before they are born, would you not take it? That is one of the prospects that genetic modification could ultimately bring.
Genome modification could not only free our future generations from health disorders, but also cure people with existing conditions. One such example is Sohana Nikapota, a 13-year-old girl who suffers from a rare genetic disorder. Her only hope of a cure is gene therapy, where the faulty part of her DNA can be replaced with a normal one. “The potential for cures – for miracles – really is there. The question is how long it is going to take.”
Looking at the issue of human genetic modification in general, another question to ask is shouldn’t potential improvement of our health be our choice? This is the crux of the freedom principle. The research is being conducted on donated embryos in the first seven days of development (around 250 cells), and they will not be brought to term or implanted. Carrying out this research does not harm anyone, and so should its pursuit to improve quality of life be hindered?
Genetic modification as a concept is not new – humans have been influencing genetic makeup since the domestication of animals as long ago as 12000 BC. One might argue that this is just the next step in the evolution of the human race.
As a society, we should stop looking at any future advancements in natural sciences or technology from a dystopian point of view, and be more optimistic. After all, without the faith we have previously shown in technology, I wouldn’t be sat here typing this blog and you wouldn’t be sat there reading it.
Against Genetic Engineering
Some argue that the British research is acceptable because it forbids embryo implantation into a female host, hence the hypothetical baby would never be born. However, we should consider the fact that these embryos will be destroyed after the 14 day research effort. An embryo has the potential to become a human being, provided the right conditions to develop. Can we justify the potential benefits of this research against the death sentence of these embryos?
The fear is that this approval of experimentation will pave the way to a civilisation of designer babies, where desired physical or mental traits are artificially imbued into the embryo for the paying customer. Advancements in plastic surgery were once made during WWI to improve facial disfigurements. It is now a cosmetic tool contributing to a superficial society and the genetic research can worsen this situation.
From a military perspective, the applications are vast; the ‘super-soldier’ is one example. Generally, advancements in technology are tested in the military industry before trickling down into consumer products and the results of genetic engineering is not likely to be an exception. Hence despite our intentions of benefiting society this research could be weaponised discouraging diplomatic solutions. Nuclear technology is evidence of this – we had the power to harness energy for society yet we also chose to create the nuclear bomb. Any capacity for loss of life should be prevented.
If the potential of genetic modification was fully realised, then there is also the possibility of a eugenics driven society whereby the human population diversity is reduced and tailored, parallel to an ideal sought by Hitler and his desired Aryan race. We cannot deny that similar beliefs could also cause a lack of genetic diversity which can pose a great threat to our safety. This is similar to how GM plant species can annihilate native varieties or even be wiped out by a single disease.
Furthermore, this form of genetic modification is unknown territory and as a result there are concerns that these modifications to the embryo may have long term effects on the remaining DNA. To what extent can testing guarantee the safety of test subjects after embryo modification in the future? Moreover, the potential consequences on a human being’s psyche because of their awareness of their own experimentation is unknown. How can we justify such a risk? Imagine you were the result of genetic modification – how would you feel?
This research is a double-edged sword – undeniably, the potential benefits of gene editing could be revolutionary but the conceivable risks could be equally damaging. The sanctity of life itself is being compromised.
If you’re interested, you can read more about this topic here.
25: Lorenzo Jerald Patterson, Eric Lynn Wright, O’Shea Jackson, Andre Romelle Young